A season that began with an exhibition home loss to Dixie State and includes a 21-point defeat to UC Santa Barbara reached an even lower point for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels on Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack.
The fact that the Deonte Burton-led Nevada Wolf Pack (8-8, 3-0) handed the Rebels (10-6, 1-2) their second straight Mountain West home loss, 74-71, was troubling to be sure.
“A significant bump in the road,” head coach Dave Rice said.
But it became very apparent afterward that this UNLV team, which has already dropped five home games at just the midway point of the season, has much bigger issues than once again playing poor interior defense while losing to its in-state rival for the first time since 2005.
(CHECK OUT BARRY WONG’S HIGHLIGHT PACKAGES BELOW)
Burton finished with a game-high 29 points, including a spectacular one-hand tomahawk jam off a lob pass with 5:06 left that increased Nevada’s lead to 69-56 and sent many in the crowd 13,741 headed to the exits.
UNLV had actually led comfortably, 34-23, after a short floater by Kevin Olekaibe with 3:07 left in the first half and looked like it was going to move on from its shocking 75-68 home loss to Air Force four days earlier.
Then the roof caved in.
Nevada closed the half with a 11-2 run that featured seven straight points from Burton and was capped off with a drive and dunk by Jerry Evans Jr. just before the halftime buzzer went off to cut UNLV’s lead to 36-34.
The Wolf Pack, who had lost eight in a row to the Rebels, then took control of the game with a 11-0 spurt to start the second half capped by back-to-back drives by Burton to go ahead, 45-36.
That’s an overall 22-2 run for those keeping score.
Nevada would lead by as many as 14 points down the stretch before the Rebels made the final score look a lot closer than it actually was with a 9-2 spurt in the final 20 seconds that included a 3-pointer by Chris Wood at the buzzer.
The Wolf Pack finished with a 38-32 edge in points in the paint while holding the Rebels to just 34.9 shooting.
“There’s no doubt that we made defensive mistakes that we haven’t made all season,” Rice said. “The last two games our defensive execution has not been good.”
Poor defense may be the least of Rice’s problems.
* Junior swingman Jelan Kendrick, one of the team’s better defenders and former starter, sat the game out after showing up “significantly late” for Tuesday’s practice according to Rice.
* Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who finished with a team-high 15 points on just 4-of-14 shooting, had a meltdown on the bench late in the game (See video above). Witnesses close by said Dejean-Jones was loudly complaining about not being on the floor at the end of the game.
* Center Khem Birch, who had 12 points and seven rebounds but was pushed around most of the game by Wolf Pack 6-foot-9 junior forward AJ West (11 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks), complained afterward in the postgame press conference that the team was “emotionally and physically tired” after the Air Force loss and blamed Rice’s decision to have the team report for practice at 8 a.m. – school is not in session yet — as a major reason why.
* Forward Roscoe Smith, who finished with his 11th double-double of the season (13 points, game-high 15 rebounds), openly questioned the “effort level of certain guys” on the team.
“I feel like everybody is not matching the effort level,” Smith said. “Anyone can give effort. I just feel like our effort level isn’t matching from certain guys.”
The Rebels now have seven days to get ready for the road trip from hell starting Wednesday at defending Mountain West champ New Mexico and concluding next Saturday at No. 13 San Diego State, which just laid a road whipping on mighty Kansas.
“We’re down, but I’m not going to determine anything until after these two road games coming up,” Birch said. “We play better against higher teams, and we could pull off two upsets, so I’m not going to say anything.”
No need to, Khem. The Rebels are clearly at the point where actions speak a whole lot louder than words.
KHEM BIRCH AND ROSCOE SMITH POSTGAME VIDEO
DAVE RICE POSTGAME VIDEO
DEONTE BURTON POSTGAME VIDEO
NEVADA COACH DAVID CARTER POSTGAME VIDEO